Wednesday, November 30, 2016

America 7.0

Fuckity fuck fuck fuck fuck godamn motherfuck shit hell cocksucker son of bitch... BOLLACKS
Sorry, just needed to get that out of the way.

I don't know what iteration the United States has entered into in the last few weeks, but I'm quite sure that whatever it is, it's definitely a worthy of a full number jump. It is a change that is horrifying, mind-bending, and utterly depressing. Much as I didn't feel like I recognized my home on 9/12/01, it's tough to see how this is the same country that existed on 11/8/16. At the same time, it is not permanent. There are an infinite iterations of numbers, and there are an infinite number of guises that our country is capable of assuming.

So here we are. Changed, but capable of change again. I know, this is simple stuff, but it's important to remember, at least for me.

For reasons I won't go into here, our family was consumed by a personal crisis at the same time that Fuckface Von Clownstick, as he'll always be to me, was setting the world aflame on November 8. It has therefore taken a little longer than normal to ruminate over what this means for me, my loved ones, and our way of life. A few thoughts, in no particular order, for you to do what you will with:

Yup, yup and hell, yup

1. The honeymoon is REALLY, truly over. I'd always sort of assumed that come November 9, I'd be able to breathe a deep sigh of relief, dial back the continuous checking with the latest political developments, and get back to the things I enjoy most: Doing fun shit with my wife and kids, running, and promoting graffiti and street art. On the latter point, I lamented in my last post that politics was crowding out everything else, and that still hasn't changed—I haven't even updated my Instagram in a month now.

I now know that as important as these things are for my own mental and physical health, I need to engage more fully with the outside world. I cannot take for granted anymore that the vast majority of people in this country will do the right thing when it comes to choosing our leaders. It is clear that there are, in fact, a terrifying number of Americans who would just as soon chuck the whole system of checks and balances out the window, just for the glimmer of "security" that a strongman promises them.
This seemed sort of funny in October. Now, not so much...

2. Right, but how to respond? There seems to be a consensus among folks I've talked to about this that once you've gotten over the despair of the moment, there are roughly three courses of action you can take: Think globally by promoting outside groups whose causes you support and pestering the living fuck out of your elected representatives to do the right thing, and act locally by doing small things in your own neighborhood to help protect the vulnerable and strengthen the ties that bind us as citizens. You know, go to rallies, visit local mosques to lend support, make eye contact with random people on the sidewalk, etc.

This is how we do it in Brooklyn.

3. Know Thy Enemy. A friend of mine made the point that in this election, there were plenty of people who were not necessarily pro-Fuckface as they were anti-Clinton. They no doubt had reasons that I disagree with, but now the election is over, those reasons are moot. He's the one giving a master class in demagoguery and corruption now; she is not. I hear a lot now about how we should do more listening to each other, but let's not kid ourselves: Those anti-Clinton voters are the ones worth listening to. The voters who really think a misogynistic bully is a model of leadership are not going to meet you half way, no matter how patient you are.

4. Issues matter. Distractions do not. (This is closely related to #3). Last week gave us a perfect illustration of this. Does it matter that Fuckface demanded that the cast of Hamilton apologize for "harassing" Mike Pence at a recent show? It does not. Same with this utter gibberish about flag burning. Picking pointless fights that do nothing but rile up his base and generate headlines is so Act I, to use a theater metaphor. While it may have made sense to respond to them when he was merely a potential threat, and not an actual one, now it's time to zero in on Act II: Plundering the prestige of the office to fill his pockets with filthy lucre.
Graf beef, or our future president's twitter account?

5. Pick issues that really resonate. With so many critical aspects of life under threat now, it feels easy to get paralyzed. Racism? Nuclear proliferation? The economy? Reproductive rights? Climate Change? Terrorism? Education? The list goes on and on, and while it may seem as if attention to one issue may result in the neglect of another, I take heart in the fact that as one person, there's only so much I can expect of myself anyway. So for me, my top three topics are climate change, "post truth" (also known as lying) in the public discourse, and preservation of American democracy, particularly when it comes to voting rights. Thinking of gerrymandering and such.
Can you guess where all the black people are crammed together?

6. Reach out. With two small children and a full-time job, this is something I've been meaning to do anyway, but now it's taken on a much greater sense of urgency. Calls and texts to friends to just ask "What are you doing?" as well as groups on Facebook do help combat the sense that I'm fighting this fight alone.

6. Blow off Some Steam. In those first few days after the election, I realized that it was not good for my mental health to log onto Facebook and Twitter and read yet another pointless series of back and forth arguments that never resolved themselves in a productive fashion. Like many, I'm addicted to my smartphone though, so now, when the urge to pick it up overcomes me, I boot up Neko Atsume instead where I currently tend to 36 cats. No, really. It's utterly pointless, and I love it. It also goes without saying that the ultimate outlet is putting the damn phone away and spending real time with my kids. They can be the biggest causes of stress, but the flipside is true as well: They give as much as they take.

Here, kitty kitty kitty...

7. Never give up on cities.  As I detailed in the very first post of this blog, this whole endeavor began with my pursuing of a masters in urban studies. I did do in part because I call a rather large one my home, but also because I do believe that cities are where the greatest challenges humanity face are going to be solved. Even that bastion of innovation, Silicon Valley, eventually came to realize that urban living is where it's at, and moved to San Francisco. (Yes, I know, the Bay area is suffering from redonkulous levels of displacement as a result, but that's another argument). Sadly, while the country is often split into "red states" and "blue states," it's probably more accurate to describe the U.S. as a country of blue islands marooned in a vast red sea, with a few larger bodies of land on the edges.

These blue islands are where I believe the future lies, and indeed, as of this writing, their denizens cast almost two million more votes for Hillary Clinton than the sentient garbage fire poised to "lead" the country. That's cold comfort, however, when you live in a country that was set up from the very beginning to protect the interests of rural states from the tyranny of the majority. Ironically, it is they, not the unwashed multi-culti masses of the streets, who have elevated the least empathetic man alive.
Brooklyn, USA

What can a writer in a liberal enclave on the coast do? I'm still working it out, as I'm sure many others are. All I know is that as I move forward, I need to define myself more by what I'm for, not what I'm against. This is going to be tough, since it's very clear that going forward, if you disagree in any way with the incoming regime (and I do mean regime in the worst possible sense), you will be labeled a traitor and attacked viciously. So yes, let's reform our own camps, and listen to those who will listen to us. But we've got to watch our asses too.  
Home sweet home, worth fighting for.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

A year later

When I decided to turn Graffiti Murals into a book, part of the motivation was borne out of the fact that I'd never encountered a book like it while I researching for my masters' thesis, and when I looked at the chapters and images I'd collected, it sure as hell seemed like there was enough material to turn it into a book.

And then, voila! The first copy arrived at my door on June 25, and on August 28th, it hit the stands in a few stores, including the Barnes and Noble in Union Square, the Strand and the Museum of the City of York. And of course, the evil empire known as Amazon. Fun little thing about that: When you buy a copy that's discounted there, the royalty I get is a percentage of that discounted price, not the list price. So yeah, I did ok sales wise, but no, I won't be taking my wife out to dinner at Per Se with my first royalty check.
Got me a little book release party in October.

I've written already about some of the publicity I was able to get, and most recently, I got the book into the hands of the folks at Brooklyn Street Art. All in all, not too bad, given that the fall was a blur of sleepless nights tending to our newborn son, who arrived two weeks before the book, and the winter was, well, it's kind of hard to describe how bat-shit crazy things can get at a university during the spring semester.  Of course, you probably knew that, given that I went seven straight months without posting anything here. Erm, sorry about that. In my defense, I did start three other posts before getting distracted by life. Also, have you heard about this thing called Instagram? I've got a whopping 204 followers now. That's something, right?
Gowanus, how you call to me like a siren...

So what now? This is a head scratcher. No one is calling anymore to talk to me about the book, and to be perfectly honest, my desire to hit up random reporters and producers has waned a bit. The book was always a bit of long shot, as wonky as it is, so at this point, I'm kind of ok with occasionally pitching it to reporters when I see they've written about something similar, and otherwise moving forward with a new project, particularly since that newborn who was keeping us up all winter is now a wobbly, more or less walking one year-old, and lets us get seven hours of continuous sleep. Time to fire up the reporting juices again!
Welcome to the world kid. This is graffiti. Capish?

The problem is, I have no idea what that should be. For a short time, it looked as if a fella from the one of the city's government agencies was going to incorporate anecdotes in the book into a proposal to expand a pilot project that promotes murals as a deterrent to vandalism, but then he jumped ship for another department and left no forwarding information. And it's not as if there aren't plenty of new walls being snapped up every day by enterprising writers, either to make political statements, advertise their talents, make real estate developers look good, or, well, who the hell knows what the point of this was, but it's out there, without the help of anyone in official city circles.

One area where there is a concerted effort to support murals is the the amazing 100 gates project out of the Lower East Side BID, and one of the best things to come out of writing the book has been meeting Natalie Raben, who runs the gates project. If you haven't wandered down that way, you don't know what you're missing. In a way, the Gates project epitomizes the kind of collaboration I hoped to inspire. After all, well-executed illegal graffiti and street art can seize and transform a block like no other, but short of changing the laws and dismantling NYC's vandal squad, there's no obvious way to promote that, aside from sharing a picture of it on twitter or Instagram. 100 gates is the next best thing, and I really hope to see more projects like it.
And they dubbed him...Faust

I need new inspiration. I love to explore new spaces when I get the chance, such as a recent visit to Mount Eden in the Bronx, and revisit familiar hot spots like the Bushwick Collective and Welling Court too. But for all the amazing art that's there, it drives me on instagram.

I can haz old skool graf please? Much thnks

In retrospect, it might have been naive to think a second act would simply reveal itself in the course of the promotion of the book.

One line in the Brooklyn Street art review intrigued me, and makes me wonder if perhaps I should try to look at the art I seek out in a different light:

In the context of urban studies and planning, the creativity here is sort of reduced to pawndom, but as a social factor, he provides examination of the intersections of invested parties.

It's an interesting observation, that I reduced the creativity of the murals to "pawndom." It feels a little like a knock, because a pawn is, by its very nature, disposable, and that's definitely not how I feel about murals. But it could also be simply because I don't delve all that deeply into the nature of the art itself. In that regard, I plead guilty to being a a bit of a philistine—shit, I can't even decipher a lot of graffiti tags.

Part of the problem, I must confess, is that in the absence of a straight forward path towards another project, I've allowed myself to become consumed with news of the presidential election. I've wasted words upon words upon words (the best words!) on social media about the human garbage fire that is Donald Drumpf the same way a person on a leaky life raft in the ocean frantically bails out sea water as fast as they can, to no avail. And yet, the stakes are so high, I can't resist the temptation to read every analysis, breaking news or flabbergasted response to the ravings of a man who is mentally and morally hollow. Hell, I've even wasted time rethinking arguments I might have made with Trumpists, even though I know their default response will always be "Well, Hillary is worse because BENGHAZI!" Worst. Election. Ever...

On the plus side, I suppose it's nice to think we'll make history one way or another on November 8, by either electing a woman for the first time, or by electing a man with fewer qualifications than a bowl of expired potato salad. In which case, I'm sure the graffiti we see will be a LOT more political than it's ever been.

In the mean time, if you bought my book online from Barnes and Noble, and figured 'Well shit, I may as well also get me a copy of Becky's Beach Fun,' kudos for making my world a little more unpredictable in a good way.

Bywater, New Orleans

Monday, December 7, 2015

Look Ma, I'm on the TV!

I have a huge post about doing publicity for the book that I've been trying without success to finish, but life has repeatedly gotten in the way. Since I haven't done squat since August, here's something that just happened today. Cheers y'all.

Did my first live tv interview about the book this morning. Gotta say, it was an intense experience. Had to get to the studio in Midtown by 7 a.m., which meant a 5:30 a.m. revelee. When I got to the green room, all that was there was a person to do makeup, an empty kitchen where you could get a cup of water, and monitors showing what was currently on the air.

Milling about this morning were a bunch of guys with yarmulkes who were apparently some sort of glee club there to do a song celebrating Hanukkah, and a guy and a girl who went on before me to debate, in about 4 minutes, the President's comments on ISIS. You can imagine how enlightening that was. There was no food or coffee, and I'd had eaten since I woke up, but that was just as well, I didn't want to run the risk of getting an upset stomach and ralphing all over the set.

I had no idea leading up to this point what questions they'd be asking, so I'd done what someone once told me about tv, which is to go in prepared to make three points, and stick to them as much as possible regardless of what they throw at you. It was nerve wracking though, because I knew I'd only get about four minutes, and how often do you get a chance to talk directly to hundreds of thousands of people in their home?

The producer came in at one point and introduced herself, and said to be ready to talk about graffiti as it relates to popular culture and the genesis of the book. Ok, that helps a little, I thought. My mind immediately went to Banksy, Sheppard Fairey, Kenny Scharf, and maybe Tats Crus' role in Jennifer Lopez' ad for Fiat? It's so hard to know what to say in such a small window of time.

After what felt like an interminable amount of time pacing and rehearsing answers to these and other hypothetical questions, a security guard came in at 7:40 and asked me what time I was supposed to go on. 7:45, I said. Oh, come on then, he said, and led me through a door, down a hall, and up an elevator. I was shown into the studio, seated, and miced. The anchor, whose name I never even learned, confirmed with me that this is about legal graffti, right? I said yes, like 5 Pointz, which thank god, he was familiar with. We chit chatted for about 30 seconds before the cameras were wheeled over, and the teleprompter started. One of the first things he says to me is, "You don't look like Mr. Graffiti."

And the rest, as they say, was history. A gazillion thanks go out to the one and only Rolando Pujol, who made the whole thing happen. YOU ROCK DUDE!

Friday, August 28, 2015

Babies and Books

I can haz baby boy?

The book! The book! She is a here! After god knows how many edits, rewrites, interviews, shoots, re-shoots, transcriptions, analyses, spell-checks, caption follow ups, style changes, photo permission requests, second guesses, and just flat out grinding, it is finally here. Woo hoo!

And as chance would have it, so is our son. WOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Yeah, so by a weird cosmic bit of timing, Henry Ignatius Verel, our second child, joined us on Friday, August 14. It's a very strange confluence, and one that presents a few challenges, to say the least, when it comes to promoting the book. But it's a good kind of busy, you know? Momma and child are in good health, and Henry's older sister is thankfully excited too. So no complaints here whatsoever. Ok, I do have some serious bitching in reserve related to extreme sleep deprivtion, but no one would care; this much I know.

If you've been following me on Instagram (and really, why the hell wouldn't you be?), you've seen several sneak previews of the works featured in the book. Since this is a book about art, I'll simply share those posts here, and let them do the talking.
Only 3 weeks till my book "Graffiti Murals" comes out! Pg 117, featuring @cernesto with the #wallnuts in #Gowanus. #graffiti #streetart #Brooklyn
Only 3 weeks till my book "Graffiti Murals" comes out! Pg 117, featuring @werk with the #wallnuts in #Gowanus. #graffiti #streetart #Brooklyn
Well hello there. It's @robotswillkill on page 44. Two weeks till Graffiti Murals! #graffiti #streetart #Brooklyn #veng #overunder #chrisrwk #peeta #never See bio for link to info.
Well hello there. It's @robotswillkill on page 44. Two weeks till Graffiti Murals! #graffiti #streetart #Brooklyn #veng #overunder #chrisrwk #peeta #never
A day after my son came home from the hospital for the first time, the extra copies of my other "baby" arrive. Kickass! #graffiti #streetart #Brooklyn #Queens #Manhattan #StatenIsland #Bronx #nyc
A day after my son came home from the hospital for the first time, the extra copies of my other "baby" arrive. Kickass!   #graffiti #streetart #Brooklyn #Queens #Manhattan #StatenIsland #Bronx #nyc

If you haven't been to Whitlock Ave in the #Bronx to see the @tatscru's #graffiti, what the hell are you waiting for? Just 1 week till the story behind this iconic mural and more is out! Info on "Graffiti Murals" in my bio. #StatenIsland #Manhattan #Queen
If you haven't been to Whitlock Ave in the #Bronx to see the @tatscru's #graffiti, what the hell are you waiting for? Just 1 week till the story behind this iconic mural and more is out! Info on "Graffiti Murals" in my bio. #StatenIsland #Manhattan #Queens

Got #Graffiti? In Manhattan's #Inwood, the answer is "Hell Yes!" The story behind this and more amazing murals is available today! Info on"Graffiti Murals: Exploring the Impacts of Street Art" in my bio. #Crane #Just #Vest #Import #streetart #nyc
Got #Graffiti? In Manhattan's #Inwood, the answer is "Hell Yes!" The story behind this and more amazing murals is available today! Info on"Graffiti Murals: Exploring the Impacts of Street Art" in my bio. #Crane #Just #Vest #Import #streetart #nyc
Pretty sweet, right? I'm really happy with how the graffiti looks in the book, and judging from some of the advance press it's gotten, it seems like others dig it too. Yeah yeah yeah, I know, there's one three star review that sort of trashes me. I'd rather be trashed than ignored. Also, haters gonna hate, blah blah...

Anyway, I feel like now that the book is finished and on the shelves, the real challenge has just begun, which is to get the word out to the folks about it. It's nothing quite as challenging as trying to raise, along with my wife, a 3 year-old and a newborn, but at least I know that the former has, like her daddy, embraced a most kick ass aspect of New York City street culture.

More on this real soon, as soon as I manage to nail down five straight hours of sleep. 


Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Case for Graffiti Murals

As I noted in my last post, I visited Bilbao last month to take part in a conference about the creative industries. It was an phenomenal experience, but the hardest part was trying to distill the crux of my book, which goes on sale on August 28, into 5 to 7 minute presentation.

What really went over best was when I dropped in a slide that connected New York to the local neighborhood of Zorrotzaurre, which only worked because I got there a day early and was able to run to the area and take pictures. You'll also note that it's tailored for the conference, and when I deliver it again, I'll make lots of changes to reflect a new audience.

Anyway, hope y'all like it. Enjoy!

New York City Graffiti Murals

In 1975, New York City was the kind of place where the city’s police and fire unions created this “survival guide.”

Fear City

They were trying to prevent layoffs at the time, and one of their strategies was to promote the fear that the city was completely out of control. Unsurprisingly, the reaction to it was so negative, it was never actually distributed, but it tells you a lot about the way things were back then.

Fast forward 40 years, and you’ll find a very different New York City from that one. The crime that was rampant back then has receded, and real estate prices have sky-rocketed. A penthouse in the One57 tower on Central Park, for instance, sold for $100 million in January.


Graffiti, which also first appeared in the 1970’s, is still present though. It’s no longer the scourge of the subways that it once was, but it is still present, particularly outside of Manhattan. Mind you, it’s very much illegal, and the punishments are quite harsh: A felony charge awaits adults caught doing it, and stores are actually prohibited from displaying real cans of spray paint in their window, lest they tempt teenagers to steal them. Unlike in some European cities, there are no areas of the city where it is legal to do graffiti, so if you want to do it without breaking the law, you have to partner with a building owner.

But despite graffiti’s association with crime, it is very much a part of the cultural fabric of New York City, and in the right context, it can empower local communities and enliven streetscapes that are simply being scrubbed blank today.

I’m talking about this sort of thing:


This is a mural in the central Brooklyn neighborhood of Gowanus that was done with the building owners’ permission. For my thesis, I visited six locations around the New York City metropolitan area to learn how these kinds of murals are created, and the effects they have on the area. Today I’m going to focus on one of those locations, Hunts’ Point in the Bronx.

Hunts Point
The Bronx is the poorest of the five boroughs, or counties, in New York City, and Hunt’s Point is one of the poorest parts of the borough. But it’s also the site of amazing graffiti, thanks to the TATS Cru, a group of graffiti artists who have created a business out of graffiti. In Hunts Point, they do murals like this:

SAM_0315 And this
The TATS Cru’s work in the Bronx is relevant to a conference about Cultural and Creative Industries, because the group members are from the area, and rather than displace the poor, they use the tools of an art form that was invented on the streets, and is extremely democratic. One need only secure a wall and spray paint to bring color to the masses. And that’s what Hector Rodriguez, one of the founders of the TATs Cru, told me when I interviewed him. I quote:

“Not everyone in New York City really has the time to partake in the art culture that’s out there. The stuff that we’re putting out there in these neighborhoods, is the modern day Picassos, Goyas and Monets that bring art and color to other people’s lives. They don’t have any other color in their life, outside of what we’re painting out there.”

Just up the road from Hunt’s Point is another mural that the TATS Cru did that I’d like to share with you.

There are murals like this all over New York City, and they serve a very important function: They preserve local culture and tell residents that their community has value beyond mere real estate values. They are, in the words of Marxist scholar David Harvey, “Marks of Distinction,” which he says represent and I quote, “the collective symbolic capital that a city has accumulated through authenticity, uniqueness, and particular non-replicable qualities.”

Graffiti is a global art form today, but it was born on the streets of New York in the 1960’s and 70’s. It distinguishes New York from other places more than the One57 residential tower that I mentioned earlier, which are simply cogs in the transfer of capital from one global city to another.

I’ll take this over towers like that any day.

Because many New Yorkers still associate graffiti with life in 1975, when 1,645 people were murdered there, it’s easy to understand why city government is hesitant to partner with graffiti artists. For comparison, there were a record low 328 murders last year.

It’s an example of “symbolic interactionism” a theory which states that people interact with each other by interpreting or defining each other’s actions instead of merely reacting to each other's actions. They don’t hate graffiti because of what it is. They hate it because of what it represents, which is a loss of control over space.

New York City currently reclaims that space for building owners for free, by erasing, or “buffing” graffiti, under a program over seen by the Economic Development Corporation. This helps owners regain control of their space, but I would argue that because the city government does not also promote partnerships building owners with artists who might want to create graffiti murals, it is missing out on an opportunity to promote a homegrown creative industry.

Although graffiti murals are primarily found in gentrifying neighborhoods that are popular with artists, such as Bushwick in northern Brooklyn, they can also be found in “uncool” areas like Staten Island, Trenton, New Jersey, and Hunt’s Point. And industrial neighborhoods have always been ripe for murals; I couldn’t help but be amazed at the amount of art in Zorrozaurre. IMG_4274 Regardless of where they are, they have the power to make a junkyard in Hunts Point into an art gallery.

In some cases, building owners hope that murals will help spur gentrification, but many simply desire a space that’s more aesthetically pleasing than graffiti tags. And while most would agree that a wall that’s been buffed clean is better than a wall that looks like this:

My task has been to show how graffiti murals are better than both. The partnerships that currently exist between owners and artists who create murals are significantly better both for them and members of the community, who I also spoke to during my site visits. In Brooklyn, a building owner compared murals to growing a garden in an alley, while a resident of Jersey City said to me, and I quote:

“Tagging is usually done out of vengeance. You know, you’re mad at someone, you’re mad at the person in the building and you just want to tag something, just to let them know that you was here, and you really don’t care if it’s painted over or if it’s clean, you know, when the bricks are clean. But when you do a mural like this, you’re really putting your heart into it. So it’s totally different.”

Finally, there’s the issue of authenticity. In 1939, Walter Benjamin wrote, and I quote, “the uniqueness of the work of art is identical to its embedded-ness in the context of tradition. This tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable. What was equally evident to both was its uniqueness, its aura.”

Graffiti murals are derived from the tags that first appeared on the streets and subways of New York. Their aura is on the street, and it’s partly because of this authenticity that people from around the world flock to see the graffiti and street art of New York.

In conclusion, I am optimistic that the people in New York are beginning to understand the value of graffiti murals. The six owners I spoke to for my thesis are great examples of private property owners who prefer art over blank spaces, and there are two other groups that are leading the charge to beautify the city: The city’s department of transportation, and Groundswell, a non profit group.

Graffiti Mural Book Cover
If you’d like to learn more, my thesis is being published in August as a book; I’d be happy to share more info with you on how to buy a copy.

Thank you.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Basque Riddle

New York and Bilbao are different in so many ways. The population variation alone screams out for attention. Bilbao, which is in northern Spain, is home to 350,000 residents in the city proper, and one million people in its entire metropolitan region. You could fit two and a half of those in Brooklyn alone.

And yet, having spent the last five days there for an academic conference at the University of Deusto, I can say there are aspects of Bilbao that are very reminiscent of New York. I was there for a conference that delved into the topic of the creative industries, but I also learned a great deal about post-industrial waterfront development, a topic that is very much on the minds of New Yorkers these days. I got to talk about my book, and although I may share that talk soon, I want to focus more on this fascinating city while it’s still on my mind. After all, I still have a bit of time to focus on the book before it hits the streets on August 28.

Look at me ma, I'm talking about graffiti!
Ground zero for both graffiti and waterfront development, is Zorrotzaurre, a peninsula that sticks out into the river running through the middle of the city. It was the site of heavy industry for decades, but the a huge chunk of it went under or relocated in the 1980’s, and not long after, they moved the port moved five miles north to new facilities on the Bay of Biscay.

Aerial view of Zorrotzuarre By Fernandopascullo - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Parallels between Red Hook are not too far off base, except Zorrotzaurre is even closer to the center of Bilbao than that struggling Brooklyn port. On my first morning there, I ran from my hotel, which was next door to the gargantuan Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim, to a section of it in less than 15 minutes.
The Guggenheim

What I found was amazing. In addition to a few token light industries, I found buildings lining narrow alleys that appeared on the verge of collapse.  Roughly 500 people call Zorrotzaurre home, but from the looks of it, nearly as many graffiti writers call it home as well. As they should, right? Is there anything better than brightly adorned decay, augmented by scads of flora bent on reclaiming a space?
Anybody home?
A butter cup grows in Spain.
Bilbao is Basque, which means it’s more distinct from the rest of Spain than say, New York State is from the United States. It’s also European, so there is a higher tolerance for taxes and the role of the state. But the city does like to think big, which is something New Yorkers can relate to. The Guggenheim was a one in a million, insanely ambitious kind of endeavor that spawned countless imitations, and the list of “Starchitects” who’ve planted their flags here is very impressive: Norman Foster designed the subways, while Santiago Calatrava designed the airport terminal and a bridge across the river.

The Basque Health Department Headquarters, by Coll-Barreu Arquitectos.
How they ever wash the windows is beyond me.
When you visit the wine cellar in the middle of town that Phillipe Starck transformed into a community center in 2005, you can actually peer up at the swimming pool on the fourth floor. Gehry has also returned, to try his hand on another bridge that will link Zorrotzaurre to the mainland when it’s transformed into an island.

And transformed, it will be, by the architect Zaha Hadid, into a brand spanking neighborhood, for 5,000 residents. Some buildings will be saved, and the master plan has space for “creative industries” as well as housing. But when I asked my hosts if there were any plans to include the artists who have taken over the streets of the neighborhood in the mean time, the answer was no. Sound familiar?

Alas, the other quality that Bilbao would seem to have in common with New York is a predilection for top-down initiatives. The logic would seem to be, a space is in a prime location, and is on the water to boot, so wholesale redevelopment is in order, and since graffiti is so ubiquitous around the city that it would cause Bill Bratton to break out in hives, no need to worry if a few blocks of it is demolished in the name of progress, right?

We got yer master plan right here!

There are other concerns about the future of Zorrotzaurre regarding finances, transportation and housing, but the absence of street art in the plan is most baffling to me. To me, the seven or eight gritty and chaotic blocks of art there are representative of the kind of grass roots creativity that is craved by urban dwellers. How that happens, I’m not sure. Jerry Wolkoff’s proposal to invite artists to paint on a space that replaces the old 5 Pointz isn’t the answer, but I suppose that neither is simply leaving one section completely alone, destined to crumble back into earth.

Step right this way to art town.

Surely there must be a middle ground? If it can be found, Bilbao would seem to be a good place for it to happen. Scholars at the University of Deusto are trying to measure the impact of “creative industries” beyond economic measures, an ambitious and intriguing endeavor. And although shiny new spaces like the Guggenheim and the Metro are (more or less) pristine, residents are content to hand over older, less prestigious spaces to artists, even in Casco Viejo, the neighborhood where the city was founded in 1300.

Star boy and me; we go way back.
I'm not the first person to wonder aloud about the possibility of doing things differently; there's a whole raft of articles floating around that critique the so-called "Bilbao Effect." But clearly, just like in New York, they's do well to pay closer attention to what’s happening at the ground level.

Like the pictures? I've got a SHIT TON more here!

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

When work and play collide

I'm moving to a new apartment in three days, so I have less than zero time to write, which sucks because I've been thinking a LOT about the possible connections between murals and gentrification ever since it was reported that a gentleman who goes by the tag "Zexor" has declared war on the Bushwick Collective, which of course is based in a neighborhood that is ground zero for gentrification.

Some have suggested that Joseph Ficalora, who heads the collective, is somehow aiming for just this goal, and while I suspect that's bunk, Ficalora apparently doesn't like to talk much (he also ignored a request I sent him before this even came up), which is a shame, because I think it's a huge issue that needs to be addressed. I'll have more on this soon, when we finally get settled in our new corner of Brooklyn.

In leiu of that, please do check out my coverage of Law, Urban Space, and the Future of Artistic Expression, an amazing day-long symposium that Fordham Law's Urban Law Journal put together on Thursday. I cover conferences like this all the time as part of my day job at Fordham, but it's rare when my work intersects so closely with my passion. Who knew the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA) could be so fascinating?  I only wish I could have attended all the panels and talks.

Anyway, it was great if for no other reason than it was the first time (that I know of) that Fordham hosted a keynote address by a well respected graffiti artist, in this case, Lady Pink. Check it out; hope you like it.